Spiral Form in Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer

(Page numbers refer to Henry Miller and Narrative Form: Constructing the Self, Rejecting Modernity by James M Decker. Routledge, 2005)

Henry Miller rejected linear narrative, creating instead something he called “spiral form”. (4) “I . . . have chosen to adopt a circular or spiral form of time development which enables me to expand freely in any direction at any given moment.” (7) Miller digresses, repeats himself, lets the narrative dissolve into dream sequences . . . he uses spiral form to create the impression that he’s telling the story just as it happens to come out, as it occurs to him to tell it. (“I have made a silent compact with myself not to change a line of what I write.”)

James M Decker explains the purpose of spiral form: in Tropic of Cancer, Miller is telling his stories “not in a logical progression, but in a subjective order.” (63) It’s all about the subject, the self: “narrative continuity” is sacrificed so that Miller can tell the story of the self from various positions, many of which “contradict or undercut one another”, and this creates “a hermeneutics of the self.” (1) In other words, we see a development of the self as it reveals itself to the reader in all its many conflicting aspects.

“Spiral form” means drifting away from the linear narrative and returning to it again and again. Digression and repetition are essential to spiral form. The linear narrative is there to be abandoned and picked up as the narrator sees fit, as he focuses on the spiral of the self’s subjective journey.

Some examples of spiral form:

  1. Interior monologue. Miller can interrupt the action with “anecdotes . . . asides, explanations, or expostulations.” (74-75)
  2. Lamentation. A particular kind of aside, where Miller will launch into a “vitriolic explosion” triggered by something in the narrative. Often a lamentation of the plight of modern man under capitalism. (72)
  3. Boredom. Miller’s narrator will spiral away from a boring scene with strange “improvisations”. For example, listening to someone speak and suddenly Miller is drifting away from what the speaker is saying and instead imagining him or her in some fantastic scene. (70)
  4. Dreams. “Spiral flow” seems to apply particularly to dreams, in which there is rarely much narrative continuity. When he was working on his Paris texts, Miller was very interested in this problem of how to render dreams in prose. (71)
  5. Emotion. Miller sometimes creates the impression of an “onslaught of emotion” by using “a flourish of illogical sights and sounds.” We momentarily step outside the “chronological current” as we are given a sense of what the narrator is feeling in that moment. (74)
  6. Catalogues. The narrator takes us away from the action to provide long lists, “a deluge of information.” Often these lists are attempts to “evoke a sense” of a scene, a person or a room. But the lists are often so chaotic – the narrator seems to pick out details at random – that the reader gets a sense that there’s a lot more that could be said about the scene, if the narrator were not so overwhelmed by it. This subjective sense of being overwhelmed in the attempt to recall a scene takes over momentarily, before we’re returned to the action. (72-73)

Decker tells us that Miller’s contribution to literature was to ask: does a novel have to have a plot? (155) Miller decided that it doesn’t, and that a novel can dispense with plot to focus on exploring what it means to be an individual self. In the many digressions and repetitions of spiral form the self will revisit old experiences and ideas from new perspectives, these new perspectives often contradicting the old. It’s essential to let these contradictions stand, so we get a sense of the development, or “hermeneutics”, of the self. (154)

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